Rhetorical tragedies:  Failed defenses in Euripides' Hippolytus and Gorgias' Palamedes

Alexander S. Alderman

Brown University

When Hippolytus defends himself to his father (983-1085), his speech has the structure and style of a model apologia, yet it fails to acquit him of the charges.  Since the audience of the play knows Hippolytus' ultimate fate, the attempted apology is ironic in a tragic sense.  But it also contains comic irony that keeps us at a distance from its speaker.  Hippolytus' arrogant self-praise only exacerbates his problems with Theseus, and his reckless pride belies his claims to sophrosyne.

In its comic and tragic irony, Hippolytus' speech has much in common with Gorgias' paradoxical Defense of Palamedes.  Readers often expect from Palamedes the same sort of casuistry we find in Gorgias' Helen and in the corresponding speech from Euripides' Trojan Women (914-965).  But Palamedes' guilt is far less certain than Helen's, and his speech does not share her exculpatory psychology or fallacious reasoning.  As with Hippolytus, we know that Palamedes' defense will fail, and we can see that his arguments, though logically sound and based on facts, isolate him from his judges' sympathy at every turn.  Among other things, Palamedes declares his motivations beyond all suspicion, claims his judges owe him much more than acquittal, and denies any personal concern over the outcome of his capital trial.  Although he explicitly agrees with the Gorgianic dictum that speech cannot convey true knowledge, he nevertheless makes no attempt to alter his judges' opinions through persuasion.

Though sound in moral and rhetorical principle, Hippolytus' and Palamedes' speeches both fail in practice.  The similarities in their subject, tone, and construction show again the mutual influence between tragedy and sophistic rhetoric, and they may give us some clues in reconstructing Euripides' lost Palamedes.


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